Considering his obsession with motorcycles since the age of four, Ben Walker has arguably landed the perfect job. His daily routine combines the roles of collector, counsellor and detective as he unearths some of the world’s most rare or forgotten bikes for world-famous auctioneer Bonhams.
His inspiration came as a toddler when he was encouraged by his motorcycle-mad dad to press his nose up against the window of a vintage motorcycle shop called Verralls, near his dad’s office in Mitcham, south London: “I always looked but never had the guts to go in. Those bikes stayed with me and inspired my love of art, reading and wanting to do this job,” Ben says.
Have you got a goldmine in your shed?
His role as international department director of collectors’ motorcycles means travelling the world to examine the motorcycles belonging to anyone from celebrities to stunned couples who find a goldmine heirloom in their garden shed.
“Sometimes, the bike has been in the family for a long time, so you have to have a lot of empathy with the sellers who have a strong emotional attachment. They maybe can’t swing their leg over it anymore and have to make the difficult decision to sell. It’s tough because riding a motorcycle keeps you young, so passing it on is a watershed moment. Once it has left their garage though, people tend to see the benefit of passing it on to an enthusiast or collector,” he says.
Wine and Obi-Wan Kenobi
The Bonhams warehouse, at a secret location on the outskirts of London, has been home to rare wine collections, furniture, Banksy paintings and even the cloak Alec Guinness wore as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. Around 86% of bikes offered by Bonhams sell, a testimony to Ben’s valuation skills.
“Oh I don’t know about that. I see in the region of 1,000 bikes a year and usually you just know if there’s value. We look for things like the first and last off the line, limited production runs and low mileage in mint condition. There are also the niche areas like the first John Bloor bikes that are worth looking out for.”
Triumph figures large in Ben’s life. He runs a 1967 T120R Bonneville that he took to last year’s Wheels and Waves, and is still mourning the loss of his old T160 Trident, sold to make room for another smaller arrival in the Walker household: “I’ve customised my Bonnie with an all-black saddle, added a twin lead front shoe and painted the tank Aubergine and Alaskan White with gold pinstripe. She’s beautiful.”
Tip-off to spine-tingling discovery
Ben’s highlight in almost two decades of hunting hidden gems was the trail that led him and his team to a stash of eight Brough Superior bikes left to rust in a barn in Bodmin, Devon. The haul, the last known collection of unrestored Broughs, had been abandoned when the owners went to live elsewhere and included a 1938 Brough 750cc BS4, which sold for £331,000 as part of the total £750,000.
“That came from a tip-off. We Google mapped the place, travelled down there and found it. We saw an old engine on the driveway, so chatted to the neighbour who passed on our details to the nephew of the owner,” recalls Ben. “He got in touch and told us they didn’t know what they had in terms of significance and value of the bikes and did we want to have a look. We were straight back down there to find these bikes, all rotten and rusting, but absolutely beautiful.”
Behind the black curtain
Ben is surrounded by a major moto celebrity’s bikes and trophies due for auction in Stafford later this year. Behind a black curtain, where we’re warned not to go, sits another haul of goodies in this Aladdin’s cave. A quick check when Ben’s not looking reveals a line of supersport bikes owned by who knows who.
There’s initially something sad about such vibrant machines ending their days here, but Ben insists the warehouse is merely a stepping stone to a new life: ”We like to think that we help perpetuate the legend for a future generation of enthusiasts. When we get a Triumph in, there’s always a buzz of excitement because it’s a brand built on heritage.
“Even the new Bobber comes from a clear lineage. You only have to look at it to see where its historic cues come from, and the same goes for the new Bonnevilles. As a purist, I don’t have an issue with it because those bikes will be the collectors’ bikes in 50 years’ time.”
Much of Ben’s work is sifting the wheat from the chaff, a job that grows increasingly challenging as he reveals that there are a great number of original 59 Bonnevilles now in existence that never left the factory: “You have to be careful as some unscrupulous builders are very good at rewriting history. Check the number on the bike, look for signs of grinding and re-stamping, and check against the Triumph records.”
With an average condition 59 fetching up to £12,000 and a mint one attracting closer to £18,000, he insists auctions where all the checks have been done are the safest, best way of connecting with history: “It’s always a thrill when you find something amazing and it proves that there really is gold in rust.”
… memorable memorabilia
“This number plate was removed from the 1946 Senior Manx Grand Prix-winning works Triumph ridden by Ernie Lyons. He signed it ‘presented to Mrs Quayle from Ernie and the boys’ as a thank you to her when she was his landlady during the race.
The plate from the Tiger 100, which led the race from start to finish in atrocious conditions, was bought for £2 at a car boot sale and sold for £3,700.”
… incredible Triumph
“Without a doubt, the 1963 Bonneville Desert Sled, ridden by the absolute King of Cool Steve McQueen. Built by his close friend, racer and stuntman Bud Ekins and painted by the legendary Von Dutch, if you can’t own the original Great Escape bike, then this is about as good as it gets. Someone else thought so too. It sold for £71,000 last year.”
… early Triumph – top of page
“The 1911 Triumph 3.5hp 500cc Free-Engine was Triumph’s first move away from a bicycle manufacturer and could cruise at speeds of 50-55mph, setting many endurance records in its day. Triumph was in its infancy after being founded in 1902 by German immigrant Siegfried Bettmann. This was one of the bikes that firmly put the company on the map, only for the First World War to intervene. It sold for £15,000 last year.”
… ancient find
“The first production motorcycle, the 1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller, had been sitting in a basement in New York’s Staten Island until the children of its then deceased owner started researching its past. They found that it was the first powered two-wheeler to enter series production and was the first machine to which the name ‘motorcycle’ was applied. It sold for £86,000.”
… shocking find
“It’s got to be the Broughs of Bodmin Moor. That was a fairy tale and but for the tip-off and our detective work, the bikes might still be there rotting away. As it is, the discovery changed many lives for the better and left a tangible and very real legacy – that makes me feel very proud whenever I think of it.”